Beni Hasan (also written as Bani Hasan, or also Beni-Hassan) (Arabic: بني حسن) is an Ancient Egyptian cemetery site. It is located approximately 20 kilometers to the south of modern-day Minya in the region known as Middle Egypt, the area between Asyut and Memphis.
To the south of the cemetery is a temple constructed by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, dedicated to the local goddess Pakhet. It is known as the Cave of Artemis, because the Greeks identified Pakhet with Artemis, and the temple is subterranean.
Provincial governors in the Middle Kingdom continued to be buried in decorated rock-cut tombs in their local cemeteries, carried over from the First Intermediate Period, at sites such as Beni Hasan. There is evidence of a re-organization of the system of government during the 12th Dynasty. During the First Intermediate Period and for some of the Middle Kingdom period it was common for Nomarchs (someone who oversees/controls a government specified area) to be hereditary positions; the elite did not depend on the king to legitimize their power as much as they had in the Old Kingdom. In the 12th Dynasty the power of the Nomarchs began to be curtailed, and provincial governors were appointed or at least confirmed by the king.
There are 37 ancient tombs here of Middle Kingdom (ca. 21st to 19th centuries BC) nomarchs of the Oryx nome, who governed from Hebenu. Due to the quality of, and distance to the cliffs in the west, these tombs were constructed on the east bank. There is a spatial distribution in this cemetery (there are two cemeteries here: the upper range and the lower necropolis) associated with the different levels of resources available to the deceased; the most important people were buried near the top of the cliff. In the lower cemetery there are 888 shaft tombs, dating to the Middle Kingdom, that were excavated by John Garstang; for the most part these tombs shared a similar general design which included a small chamber or recess at the foot of the shaft (facing south) to receive the coffin and the funeral deposits.
In the upper cemetery members of the elite class built striking tombs to represent their social and political positions as the rulers and officials of the Oryx Nome, which is the 16th Nome of Upper Egypt. At this site, the provincial high elite were buried in large and elaborately decorated tombs carved into the limestone cliffs near the provincial capital, located in the upper cemetery area. These tombs lie in a row on a north-south axis. There is a slight break in the natural rock terrace, on to which they open, that divides the thirty-nine high status tombs into two groups. The basic design of these elite tombs was an outer court and a rock-cut pillared room (sometimes referred to as the chapel) in which there was a shaft that led to the burial chamber.
Some of the larger tombs have biographical inscriptions and were painted with scenes of daily life and warfare. They are famous for the quality of their paintings. Nowadays, many of these scenes are in poor condition, though in the 19th century copies were made of several of them.
Four out of the 39 tombs are accessible to the public:
- Tomb 2 – Amenemhet, known as Ameni, nomarch under Sesostris I.
- Tomb 3 – Khnumhotep II: notable for the depiction of caravans of Semitic traders.
- Tomb 15 – Baqet III: notable for the depiction of wrestling techniques.
- Tomb 17 – Khety, an 11th dynasty nomarch, son of Baqet.
Tomb 3 (Khnumhotep II)
The tomb of Khnumhotep II, one of the most notable at Beni Hasan, dates to the early 12th Dynasty (1991-1783 BCE) which is in the Middle Kingdom. The deceased was a high official of the ancient administrative area, the Oryx. His titles include Overseer of the Eastern Desert (he held this position from Year 19 of Amenemhet II until at least Year 6 of Senwosret II), Hereditary Prince, Count of Menat Khufu, Overseer of priests. The tomb would have been approached during ancient times via a path that was distinguishable by dark brown boulders on either side; the path extended from the open outer court down the hill to the edge of the cultivated land.
The tomb of Khnumhotep II is fronted by a columned portico and a small courtyard; the courtyard would have been surrounded by mud-brick walls. The small columned portico is on the west side of the courtyard, directly in front of the tomb entrance. The ceiling of the portico is curved similar to the shape of a segmented barrel. The rock around the doorway leading inside the tomb to the chapel was smoothed and flattened, on which a fourteen line inscription is giving the list of the festal days for the services of funeral offerings, called percheru, along with the name and titles of Khnumhotep II. The floor of the main chamber (also referred to as the chapel) is sunk into the ground below the level of the open outer court and is descended into by three steps. The chapel is the main chamber cut straight back into the cliff almost symmetrical with 4 columns and two large shafts (that lead to burial chambers) are cut into the floor. These four main columns support a ceiling that is divided by three segmented barrel shapes; an illustration of this by G.W. Fraser is available in Percy Newberry’s book. These vaults are painted in a pattern that may be referencing a tent. The only light for this chamber would have come from the doorway to the portico and originally a door, between the portico and the chamber, could have been used to close the tomb to the outdoor elements. Percy E. Newberry notes that the only remain from the inward swinging door is the pivot-hole. On the doorjambs are prayers to Osiris and Anubis above a seated Khnumhotep II who is facing inward. At the back of this main room (east wall) is a small rectangular shine approached by a step about five inches high. Newberry mentions that from his survey of the tomb there was a statue here of a seated Khnumhotep II, but the entire statue had been cut away and only a portion of the seat remains.
In the main chamber there is an autobiography of the deceased; it begins to the left of the entrance to the shrine and runs counterclockwise around the walls of the main chamber, ending to the right of the doorway leading to the shrine. The main types of information included are about the actions Khnumhotep II performed during his lifetime, his family and their lives, as well as the close relationship of his family to the royal house, Khnumhotep II’s excellent character, and his request to visitors that offerings are made to him.
On the west wall of the chamber are scenes showing mainly the preparations for the funeral and the resurrection of the deceased. This is exemplified by the boat voyages making a connection between Khnumhotep II and the god Osiris. The orientation of the boats within the tomb literally has them travel south to Abydos (right of the entrance) and north to return (left of the entrance). The wall collectively ensures the tomb owner of rebirth in the afterlife where he will be sustained through cult activities.
An increasing threat to the Middle Kingdom was the Asiatic groups to the northeast. Texts from the Middle Kingdom include Asiatic names suggesting their presence in Egypt during the 12th dynasty. It has been proposed that they probably entered the country as nomadic pastoralists in parts of the eastern Delta or as workers attempting to flee famines. They traveled to Egypt in caravans; knowledge of this comes primarily from scenes in elite tombs. On the eastern end of the north wall there is a large-scale standing figure of Khnumhotep II receiving offerings primarily of several types of animals and birds. What makes this tomb stand out among the 39 large rock-cut tombs at Beni Hasan is the scene of nomadic traders bringing the deceased offerings; the Aamu group led by the Aamu Sheykh, Absha. Kathryn Bard interprets this man to be the chief of the group of foreigners, spelled Abisha. The west end of the wall has another large-scale figure of Khnumhotep II only here he is facing right and using a bow to hunt in the desert which is on the edge of the Egyptian world, the boundary between order and chaos. It has been interpreted that in this scene Khnumhotep II is assuming the role of the king dominating over the chaotic power of the desert. The king can be identified with the god Horus and in which case the animals are seen as enemies of the gods and of Egypt.
The east wall houses the entrance to the shrine, as well as two large depictions of Khnumhotep II hunting in the marshes, one on the north side and the other on the south side. To the south he is harpooning two relatively large fish and to the north he is fowling with a throwstick. These hunting in the marshes scenes help protect the deceased in the afterlife as well as guarantee his rebirth through connotations of sexuality. Beneath him, north of the door, there are pictures of several people fishing and beneath him on the south side are representations of fighting boatmen. Collectively this wall represents the perpetual renewal of Khnumhotep II.
The fourth wall of this tomb, south wall, was dedicated to the celebration of the cult meal of Khnumhotep II and his wife Khety. The east end of the wall features the deceased seated in front of an offering table covered with offerings holding a flail, traditionally seen as a symbol of royalty or divinity, in his right hand. At the west end of the wall there is an illustration of Khety sitting in front of a full offering table. She is facing left and participating in her husband’s meal presented by his cult. The shrine portrays a smaller version of the offering cult and in many ways can be seen as an expansion from the false door of the Old Kingdom, where a statue inside a niche could have been integrated. The placing of statues in the chapel itself is a new funerary art style that appeared in the Middle Kingdom tombs. However, the function of the chapel in the tomb still remained the same from the Old Kingdom; it was the location for funerary rituals that supplied the deceased with provisions for the afterlife. The representation of food shown on the south wall was to secure that the deceased would be fed for eternity.
This is only a brief description of the tomb of Khnumhotep II. Within all of the beautiful painted scenes, many of which were not discussed here, are several underlying connotations to the ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. Also this tomb highlights the change in relationship from the Old Kingdom between the ruling king and the elite class. As well as a new focus in mortuary art, scenes of warfare and foreigners are characteristic of this period; such illustrations also foreshadow future developments in Egyptian history.
- Banes and Malek (2000) p. 120
- Robins (1997) p. 8
- Banes and Malek (2000) p. 128
- Robins (1997) p. 101
- Richards (2005) p. 80
- Garstang (1907) p. 45
- Kamrin (1999) p. 25
- Bard (2008) p. 189
- Kamrin (1999) p. 1
- Kamrin (1999) p. 26
- Newberry (1893) p. 52
- Kamrin (1999) p. 30
- Newberry (1893) p. 53
- Kamrin (1999) p. 33
- Kamrin (1999) p. 32
- Kamrin (1999) p. 35
- Kamrin (1999) p. 36
- Kamrin (1999) p. 81
- Illustration from Newberry (1893)
- Bard (2008) p. 173
- Newberry (1983)
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- Kamrin (1999) p. 88
- Illustrations from Newberry (1893)
- Kamrin (1999) p. 105
- Kamrin (1999) p. 115
- Kamrin (1999) p. 122
- Kamrin (1999) p. 123
- Kamrin (1999) p. 125
- Kamrin (1999) p. 137
- Robins (1997) p. 102
- Baines, John, and Jaromir Malek. Cultural Atlas Of Ancient Egypt. Revised Edition ed. Oxfordshire, England: Andromeda Oxford Limited, 2000.
- Bard, Kathryn A. An Introduction To The Archaeology Of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Ltd, 2008.
- Garstang, John. The Burial Customs of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Archibald Constable & Co Ltd, 1907.
- Kamrin, Janice. The Cosmos of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan. London, England: Kegan Paul International, 1999.
- Newberry, Percy E. Beni Hasan. Vol. Part 1. London, England: Kegan Paul, Trench, Tubner & Co., Ltd., 1893.
- Richards, Janet. Society And Death In Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP, 2005.
- Robins, Gay. The Art Of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.
- Kamrin, Janice (1999). The Cosmology of Khnumhotep.
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